Monday, August 8, 2011
August 8, 2011: Multi-talented
When it comes to our culture’s (and maybe every culture’s) evaluation of artistic genius, I think we tend to prefer those artists who do, within their chosen medium, one thing exceptionally well over those who do many things successfully but perhaps less exceptionally. So in film, for example, few critics would dispute the claim that Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest filmmakers of the last few decades, even though (or perhaps, again, because) the majority of his best-known films are very similar in many ways: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, and The Departed all (despite distinctions of course) mine a core, shared vein of crime and violence, honor and loyalty, and the darker sides of the American Dream. On the other hand, I doubt you could find a critic (outside of those who give 5-star reviews to the latest direct to DVD features in order to get their names on the box) willing to call Ron Howard a genius filmmaker, even though (or perhaps, again, because) his resume includes a stunningly long list of movies that feel quite distinct from each other: Cocoon, Willow, Parenthood, Backdraft, Far and Away, The Paper, Apollo 13, Random, EdTV, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Beautiful Mind, The Missing, Cinderella Man, The Da Vinci Code, and Frost/Nixon all appeared within one twenty-year period of Howard’s career, and I don’t know that any two can be connected in any particularly significant ways.
I’m not trying to make the case that Howard is a more talented (much less more important) filmmaker than Scorsese; that’s the kind of thing that gets your AmericanStudier license taken away. While tastes can of course vary, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that any of Howard’s films have changed the landscape of American cinema or culture, while certainly Scorsese’s early works fit that description. Along those same lines, neither would I claim that Norman Mailer is as talented a novelist or writer as William Faulkner, whose prose style and use of stream of consciousness helped revolutionary the novel and writing and justifiably earned him a Nobel Prize. But just as the range and diversity of Howard’s career bespeaks an artist willing and able to delve into virtually every genre, so too would I make a case that the diversity of Mailer’s literary output, particularly within a fifteen-year period in the middle of his career (between An American Dream  and The Executioner’s Song ), at least demands acknowledgment and at best represents an artist who can vary his talents and results much more fully than a largely static (if again hugely talented) writer like Faulkner.
The Mailer novels that I used to bookend that fifteen-year period, An American Dream and The Executioner’s Song, might seem in a description of their plots to have a great deal in common: the fictional protagonist of Dream, Stephen Rojack, murders his wife and becomes, along with a femme fatale of a nightclub singer, an adversary to virtually every prominent force in 1960s American society; while the real-life protagonist of Song, Gary Gilmore, falls in love with a young woman whose influence contributes to his eventual breakdown into a mass murderer who is caught and sentenced to death. Yet the two could not be more formally or stylistically different: with Dream published serially in a highly metaphorical and (appropriately) dream-like style, with characters who feel like archetypes of national life existing in an invented Manhattan underworld; and Song written as an intimate, extremely realistic representation of the perspectives and lives of its real characters, set against precisely captured middle American settings. The two were also very different in the responses they produced—Dream was considered anti-war and even treasonous, and was banned from publication in America for years; while Song was a huge best-seller and won Mailer the Pulitzer Prize. Both are also, like all of Mailer’s works, flawed and difficult, possibly misogynistic, frustratingly hard to pin down, and, like all of his publications within (and beyond) this wide-ranging fifteen-year period, well worth your time.
I haven’t even mentioned the best book from within these years: The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History (1968). That’s because tomorrow’s post will be a follow-up to this one that will focus on that novel and the questions of protest and activism to which it connects. It’s just as distinct from the two aforementioned novels as they are from each other, illustrating even more fully the diversity of Mailer’s talents and output. There’s not much value in trying to prioritize kinds of artistic success, but I think it’s high time we added such multi-talented artistry to our list of truly impressive, even genius, achievements. More tomorrow on Armies,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) An interesting piece on Gilmore and Mailer: http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-March-1997/petch.html
2) A review of Dream by the great literary critic Richard Poirier: http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/an-american-dream-by-norman-mailer/
3) OPEN: Any multi-talented folks you’d highlight?